I’m a sucker for cured meats, especially bacon. When Bruce Aidells sent me a copy of his new cookbook it was one of the first recipes that caught my attention.
If you think back through some of my favorite recipes you’ll quickly figure out that I love bacon. The Bacon Explosion (or bacon-wrapped bacon), the Stout Pork Loin (draped in bacon), and of course the Ultimate Stuffed Burger (encircled with bacon). I clearly don’t fancy taking the easy route with only wrapping a piece or two around a tenderloin. No, too easy. I save it for the recipes where it truly can take it to the next level.
So clearly when I thumb through Bruce's The Great Meat Cookbook: Everything You Need to Know to Buy and Cook Today's Meat I enjoyed the thought of making my own bacon. Why not? We’ve made our own homemade pastrami. Well, my friend, bacon is even easier! Cure, cold smoke, chill and slice. Easy.
Truth be told I was hesitant at reviewing this recipe because there are literally dozens (yes dozens) of recipes that are off-the-charts amazing that I could have easily reviewed. In fact, if you were to look at my copy you’d catch me with dozens of little bookmarks sticking out the top. I was simply hesitant that some of you out there may not be not be equipped for cold smoking, but after a moment I quickly recanted. There are just so many easy ways to cold smoke. See my cold smoking vs hot smoking post for the difference and many common solutions to get your current smoker/grill set up for cold smoking.
If you’re not familiar with the name Aidells (website), you should know that they make some of the best sausages on the market. In fact, he even shares a few sausage recipes in this book (I like the classic frankfurter, maple and sage breakfast sausage, and Thai sausage). However, out of all these recipes I figured the one that would pique the most interest would be the bacon recipe. I’ll give the basic recipe as I think it will give you the best idea of how good this recipe turns out. In the book Bruce also lays out several variations on the recipe to show you how to make brown sugar-, maple-, molasses-, scotch-and-Drambruie-, honey-, treacle-, or malt-flavored bacon (these are listed at the bottom of the page).
The format of this cookbook is great. It takes a different approach and seeks to show you how to cook every imaginable cut of beef, bison, pork, veal and lamb. The book even takes time to focus on newly popular grass-fed beef and heritage pork. So don’t assume that this book is all sausage. If that’s what you’re looking for then I’d check out Bruce Aidells's Complete Sausage Book : Recipes from America's Premium Sausage Maker. It’s a very well-reviewed reference and worthy of another discussion. The Great Meat Cookbook, on the other hand, is to all cuts of meat what Julia Child’s cookbooks were to French cooking.
Differing combinations of salt, sugar, nitrite and/or nitrate are used for the purposes of meat preservation, color and flavoring. When done with salt alone it’s typically referred to as salting or corning (e.g., corned beef). Bacon is a cured meat. The term curing is typically reserved for when salt is used with nitrites/nitrates. This can be done with either coating the meat’s surface (dry cure) or by dissolving the cure in water (wet cure, brine, or pickling). Here we’ll be using nitrites (Instacure #1) and doing a wet cure. This is what the recipe in the cookbook uses. It produces a good texture w/ the meat and I believe it’s nearly foolproof compared to a dry cure. If you’d like to read more about cures I cover quite a bit of information in my post about salts and curing.
About Cold Smoking
The recipe in the cookbook gives information on cold smoking using a kettle grill/sawdust pan setup. You can also find information in my cold smoking vs hot smoking post that is geared towards many different set ups. For this recipe I used my Traeger Cold Smoker attachment (detailed in that post) and bumped up my P-Setting in order to maintain a lower temperature on the “Smoke” setting. If you have another type of smoker/grill then find the recommended setup listed on that page.
1) Starting with a 6-10 lb fresh pork belly, cut it crosswise into 3 or 4 equal-sized pieces. Lay the pieces in a rectangular storage tub large enough to hold them and the brine. I typically use a large 10x8x9 airtight container (40 cup/9.4 liter) that fits easily on my top shelf.
2) Mix 1 gallon cold water, 1 lb kosher salt, 1/2 lb brown sugar and 3 tbsp Instacure #1. Please note that the amounts are provided in weights. When dealing with large amounts of salt it is best to deal with weights as Diamond and Morton kosher salt have a different shape and density. So 1 cup of Diamond Crystal is actually equal to about 3/4 cup of Morton kosher salt. Be sure to adjust accordingly depending on which salt you’re using.
3) Cover and refrigerate for 2 days for smaller bellies (6-7 lbs) or 3 days for bellies larger than 7 lbs. Place a plate on top to weigh them down. After 1 day remove the belly pieces, stir the brine, and then re-submerge the meat, changing the order of the pieces in the brine.
4) Remove the meat from the brine. Wash thoroughly under cold water and then pat dry with a paper towel. Be sure the meat is completely dry. You can apply 3 tbsp coarse ground black pepper over the surface of the bacon if you like.
5) Cold smoke the bellies. I prefer to be under 90°F, but the recipe states that 70-110°F is acceptable. Smoke the meat for 4-6 hours using your favorite hardwood. For bacon I really like a mixture of half apple and half hickory.
Note: remember that we're cold smoking so there isn't an internal temperature that we need to watch. With cold smoking we're just adding flavor, so think of the smoke simply as a spice. How much smoke time you want is up to you.
6) The bacon can be sliced into 1/8th inch thick slices immediately, wrapped and then refrigerated. I typically allow it to cool to room temperature and then wrapped to refrigerate overnight. It is far easier to slice it when cold.
For slicing you can try using a large knife or a meat slicer. If you have one, or know of someone that has one, a meat slicer is the best option for perfect, consistent slices. For this recipe I used one similar to this Chef's Choice slicer and used the #5 setting for a thick slice.
7) The bacon can be cooked immediately in a skillet until nicely browned, preferably not cooked to a crisp since you did spend all this time on it (only about 5 minutes per side). Alternatively, it can be refrigerated for up to a week or frozen for up to 2 months.
Molasses-flavored bacon: replace 1/4 cup of the brown sugar in the brine with 1/2 cup unsulfured molasses.
Tropical-flavored bacon: replace 1 cup of the water in the brine with 1 cup dark rum and replace 1/4 cup of the brown sugar with 1/2 cup unsulfured molasses.
Scotch-and-Drambruie-flavored bacon: replace 2 cups of the water in the brine with 1 cup scotch and 1 cup Drambuie and replace 1/2 cup of the brown sugar with 1 cup honey.
Maple-flavored bacon: replace 1/4 cup of the brown sugar in the brine with 1/2 cup real maple syrup (I use Grade B) or replace all the brown sugar with maple sugar. Add 1 tbsp pure vanilla extract to the brine (an excellent time to make use of my homemade vanilla extract - I’m always looking for an reason).
Honey-flavored bacon: replace 1/4 cup of the brown sugar in the brine with 1/2 cup honey.
Treacle-flavored bacon: replace 1/4 cup of the brown sugar in the brine with 1/2 cup of dark treacle made from the syrup that remains after sugar is refined).
Malt-flavored bacon: replace 1/4 cup of the brown sugar in the brine with 1/2 cup of malt syrup.
Kentucky-inspired bacon: replace 1 cup of the water in the brine with 1 cup bourbon and use dark brown sugar instead of light brown sugar.